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Remembering Bill Lishman

Like most Canadians, I knew of the one and only Bill Lishman long before I ever met him, largely through the success of the 1996 Oscar-nominated film Fly Away Home, which was based on his exploits imprinting migratory birds to fly with a man on an ultralight aircraft. It’s an amazing story, to be sure, but in the flesh, the man himself made the character in the Hollywood film seem pale and one-dimensional by comparison—and seriously lacking in pyrotechnics.
Although we crossed paths a couple of times at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, I really met Bill at Purple Hill, his iconic underground home on the rolling Oak Ridges Moraine northwest of Toronto. He and his wife Paula were hosting a party to celebrate the resolution of legal difficulties that had arisen from the grounding of a ship called the Sea Adventurer on a massive rocky ridge in the middle of the Coronation Gulf in the Canadian Arctic. Everyone at the party had some kind of connection to Adventure Canada, the company that had chartered the ship and hired people like Bill to animate it; indeed, many in attendance had been rescued from the stranded ship.

It was the day after Halloween. In addition to the menagerie of metal sculptures scattered about the property, the Lishmans’ long country laneway was dotted on one side that day with a line of fat pumpkins. With all that was going on in and around the house, it came almost as an imposition when, a couple of hours into the festivities, Bill, looking like the benevolent madman that he was — hair askew, spring in his step, twinkle in his eye — came up from the airstrip and herded everyone outside. He then arranged us, like a director with parade-watching film extras, into a line along the lane, opposite the pumpkins. “Not too close,” he said, as if the pumpkins were somehow radioactive.

By now, a new item had appeared at the end of the line of pumpkins: a handsome and realistic sculpture of a rock the size of a good-sized goat, with a familiar-looking expedition vessel perched on top of it. The model might have been a metre or so long and, like the rock, was beautifully hand-painted. As the guests took in this scene, the sculptor himself was scurrying about, connecting wires to each of the elements on the laneway.

He then appeared with what looked like a WWII-era T-detonator, very similar to the ones Wile E. Coyote used to try to blow up the Roadrunner on Saturday morning cartoons. This he set down with great ceremony, like P.T. Barnum in the centre ring, and casually asked for a volunteer from the audience.

“Press it,” he said with the enthusiasm of a child to the unsuspecting person who had stepped up. Nothing happened. The crowd booed eagerly. Undaunted, Bill checked the pumpkins, fiddled with the wires, pulled the T-handle back to its neutral position. “Press it again.”

With that, the first pumpkin in the laneway lineup exploded. Then another, and another, and so on down the line. Pumpkin pulp flew everywhere. The guests were incredulous, perhaps even a little stunned.

After about a dozen splendid orange explosions — there wasn’t a person in the crowd that day who didn’t go home with pumpkin on them somewhere — the detonator was attached to the sculpture at the end of the laneway. I forget now who was invited to press the “T”; it may have been Bill’s friend Matthew Swan, the founder of Adventure Canada.

“Fire in the hole,” someone yelled as the plunger was pushed home. The “rock” (which was made of glued sheets of carved and painted pink Styrofoam insulation) splintered into ten thousand tiny pieces that rained down on Purple Hill like volcanic ash, leaving the ship proudly standing on a metal rod, as if finally freed from its perch. Vintage Lishman delight.

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